SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal grand jury in California indicted 12 men suspected of being members of the violent MS-13 gang on charges that include murder, extortion, arson and drug trafficking, authorities said.
The men indicted Thursday in San Jose lived in Santa Cruz — a sanctuary city — and their victims included immigrants from El Salvador living in the area, prosecutors said.
Members of the gang would meet to discuss who had an interest in killing certain targets, authorities said.
“They instilled fear in everyone who experienced or witnessed their brutality,” U. S. Attorney Alex G. Tse said.
The charges mark the latest development in a case that created a rift between federal and local authorities involving Santa Cruz’s sanctuary city policy.
The defendants were arrested in early 2017 as part of a five-year investigation involving federal and local law enforcement agencies. Local authorities later said they were duped into helping make immigration arrests, violating the city’s sanctuary law.
Then-Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel said Department of Homeland Security officials lied when they assured police the joint operation would not include immigration-related arrests.
Assistant Chief Dan Flippo said he learned a number of immigration arrests were made the next night when dozens of protesters disrupted a Santa Cruz City Council meeting to voice their displeasure over the raids.
As a sanctuary city, Santa Cruz prohibits its police from cooperating with federal authorities investigating immigration violations. Immigrant and civil rights advocates say sanctuary laws encourage immigrants to report crime to police without fearing deportation. Critics say it makes it too difficult for federal agents to find and deport ex-convicts who are a danger to communities.
The defendants indicted Thursday had been in custody since the 2017 joint operation. They range in age from 23 to 38 and are accused of belonging to a branch of MS-13 known as Santa Cruz Salvatrucha Locos 13.
The indictment alleges that Velarmino Escobar-Ayala, Tomas Rivera, Melvin Lopez, Alexander Martinez-Flores, Erik Escalante-Torres and Jose Noe Ramirez-Avelar, conspired to commit a murder and that all of the men, except for Lopez, committed the killing.
Also indicted were Ismael Alvarenga-Rivera, Willfredo Ayala-Garcia, Jose David Abrego-Galdamez, Gerber Morales, Emilio Escobar-Albarnga and Josue Alcedis Escobar-Cerritos.
All 12 suspects were charged with racketeering and drug trafficking.